Preparing Autistic Children for the Holidays

A couple of Januarys ago, as my husband and I were boxing up seasonal decor, he went to toss in one of my son’s favorite holiday movies, The Polar Express. Like many families, each December, we look forward to curling up on the couch and enjoying holiday films. But I stopped him. This was a tradition that needed to change, and here’s why.

My autistic son is seven years old. The holidays used to be tough. Halloween was especially confusing for him. He didn’t want to wear a costume. He had no idea what trick-or-treating was.  When someone rang the doorbell, he thought they were coming in to play with him. Then when he’d see their costumes, he’d get scared. In true Halloween spirit, it was a nightmare.

Come December; he was completely overwhelmed by the tree and decorations. He didn’t know why that elf kept moving all over the house. He was terrified of Santa. On the big day, he had one of his worse meltdowns ever. Of course, this happened in front of the entire family.

I realized I needed to do things much differently. I needed to proactively prepare him for the holidays, so he knew what to expect. Luckily, I had a few ideas.

Prepare Using Manipulatives

I made two bins—one for Halloween toys and one for Christmas toys. In the Halloween bin, I put toy ghosts, witches, jack-o-lanterns, and more. In the Christmas bin were items such as the characters from Rudolph, a small gift, and golden tickets from the Polar Express movie. I pulled the bins out throughout the year, and we talked about the holidays while we played with the toys.

Prepare Using Movies, Books, and Role Playing

We also frequently watched movies, sang songs, and read books about Halloween and Christmas. During play, we dressed in costumes and pretended to trick-or-treat. And I believe we’ve made at least a hundred Play-Doh snowmen over the last year!

The results thus far have been pretty stellar! Last year in early October, I took him to pick out a costume, and he chose Sonic. He wore the costume multiple times before the big day. Unlike last year, he was excited to walk the neighborhood and see all the kids’ costumes. And he knocked on each door and said “trick or treat,” just like we’d practiced all year.

We took him on a Polar Express simulation ride two years in a row as soon as it opened in early November. I also got him his small Christmas and let him pick out his ornaments. We may have busted that thing out in July for a time or two!

For most kids, saving the magic until the moment works well. You can build anticipation and excitement and then enjoy their reaction. But for kids with developmental disabilities, that often won’t work. Surprises, disruptions in routines, and new experiences can have a negative effect. By keeping the holiday magic alive year-round, they know what to expect, and the experience is better for everyone!

And who doesn’t enjoy Christmas in July? Or like we do every month of the year!

Find out what works, and do more of that. – Steve de Shazer



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